What Woody Allen can teach you about copywriting

June 14, 2012 | By | 10 Replies More

Whatever you think about Woody Allen ‘the man’…

As a filmmaker, he’s made some truly great films. That’s a simple fact.

For what it’s worth, I think he’s a brilliant writer, a great director and a good actor….

You only have to look at Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Play It Again, Sam, Deconstructing Harry, Zelig, Whatever Works and on and on and on and…

OK, you get the picture!

But anyway…

Recently I watched a documentary about him – unsurprisingly called Woody Allen: A Documentary, in case you want to see it yourself.

Now, I imagine Allen himself would dislike the idea of copywriting. He doesn’t like the world as it is, so I can’t imagine he’s keen on advertising. But still, you can take good ideas from anywhere, right?

And so we will…

You see, I was particularly interested in something Allen said in the film about the way he approaches film making itself and how it falls in line with how I believe you should approach copywriting.

Here’s what mean…

Since the mid-nineties Allen has been producing a film a year. And most of them have been a bit rubbish. Well… not rubbish exactly, but not as good as his best films.

Recently, he did hit another good run, with Vicky Christina Barcelona and Whatever Works. But then he hiccuped a little again – with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger – before hitting home a box office smash with Midnight in Paris.

Thing is: he just doesn’t care.

Really. Whether one film’s a hit or another film’s a flop; it doesn’t matter. He just does the best he can to film the script he wrote and then as soon as the reel is in the can, he’s on to the next one.

He claims – half joking, half serious – that he’s following a ‘quantity’ theory… that if he just keeps knocking out films to the best of his ability, a few of them might be half decent.

Funny thing is, it works.

You see, you can only fine tune something so much before you’re just wasting your time. Don’t get me wrong, you should always aim to produce the best version of something you can, but at the same time, you’ve got to know when to stop and move on.

That’s really how it should be with copywriting. Especially when you’re writing a long copy sales letter.

I personally work as a copywriter in much the same way Woody Allen works as a filmmaker. With each assignment, I do the best I can to write out the idea I’ve got in the best way I can. But I write fast and once I’ve written what I think will work, I test it.

If it does work, great.

If it doesn’t, it’s no real worry because I’m already on to the next idea.

Meanwhile, other copywriters are still deliberating over their FIRST idea, trying to guess if the market will receive it well or whether it will bomb. Of course, there’s really no way to know without testing it, but they don’t seem to realize that.

Sure, using my approach will mean that sometimes you write a real clunker that completely flops. But every time you do write something that doesn’t work, you learn something about what might actually work. That knowledge can often be more valuable than writing a promotion that does work but not knowing WHY it works.

And of course, the copywriter that dwells on a promotion and tests nothing… learns nothing!

So, the bottom line is…

Like Allen approaches film making, when it comes to writing copy, you shouldn’t spend too long deliberating and conjugating over the small details if you don’t have a good inclination of whether the overall idea will work at all.

Test it. Change it. Test it again!

Best,
Glenn

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Category: Technicals

About the Author ()

Glenn Fisher is a professional copywriter, founder of AllGoodCopy.com and author of Write Better Copy. He is an expert in long copy sales letters, having written copy that has so far generated more than £10 million in revenue. Born in Grimsby, he now lives in London.

Comments (10)

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  1. Hillary67 says:

    Love the line about testing nothing means you learn nothing. Good piece. Thanks Glenn. I’ll check oh the docu too 🙂

  2. TimF says:

    Good read man. Love woody Allen and good way to think about testing copy too. Don’t wait around for answers, just get ‘Em and if they ain’t right, go get some more.

  3. Sarah Evans says:

    As a copywriter I’ve fallen into the trap of tweaking and tweaking and then tweaking some more until a whole week’s gone by and I’ve not finished what should have been a simple piece of copywriting.
    I’m a big believer in doing your best and I rely on intuition now to decide if a piece is finished or not, I just have a ‘good feeling’ about it and know it’s ready for the client to see.
    99% of the time this works but when it doesn’t, I learn something new, as you say… “every time you do write something that doesn’t work, you learn something about what might actually work”

  4. Glenn Fisher says:

    @hilary67 thanks, glad you enjoyed it and hope you enjoy the free download

    @timf haha, if you don’t get the right answers – get some different ones. I like it.

    @sarahevans you’re right about intuition, and as a copywriter you should always go with that above anything else!

    Thanks all for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Phil Heston says:

    I think it’s dangerous to rush something if you’re not sure it’s right. I can see you’re point, I guess but I think quality should win over quantity.

  6. Glenn Fisher says:

    @paulheston Fair enough, Paul and believe me, I’m not suggesting you should sacrifice quality for quantity. Far from it! I just think you give yourself a better chance of writin something of true quality if you quickly test a lot of different things. You should let the market judge you before you judge yourself 🙂

  7. Phil Welch says:

    Some good points, Glenn. But I think it’s an approach that works best when you’ve already established a good reputation. For a writer starting out the most important thing is to get something right (at least in the eyes of the client).

    I’ve been in this game for 26 years now and have followed your approach for most of that time. But at the start, I definitely took more time and care. It’s only when I’d gained my clients’ confidence that I felt I could turn good copy around quickly. As you say, you’re always learning – from successes as well as the occasional piece that bombs.

    • Glenn Fisher says:

      Fair point, Phil. I’m actually training two young chaps at the moment and with the first promotion it is a slow step by step process. Though once they’re up and running as you say, it’s about learning from failure as well as success. It’s fine to fail, just so long as its quick.

  8. Keep on keeping on.

    A question though, how do you learn something about what might actually work from something that doesn’t work?

    I can understand if there was a little ‘consumer’s edit button’ where you could get feedback on why the writing didn’t work, but if there is just no take up – aren’t there lots of possible errors and no way to know exactly why it didn’t work?

    • Glenn Fisher says:

      I attempt to split test variables throughout a sales letter so I can see which different elements work and which don’t. Most people seem to only test a headline or an offer. I think that’s missing a trick.

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